Monday, February 20, 2012

Getting into Gaming: A Newb’s Perspective

If you would have asked me what Dragon Age, World of Warcraft, Borderlands or even Call of Duty was four years ago, I would have given you a confused look. I’ve gone from a vague familiarity with Mario and Sonic to playing games during the majority of my free time. This is how I got there.

With movies like “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and “Gamer,” it’s clear that video games are becoming more and more accepted as a part of everyday media culture. Even TV shows like NCIS and Law and Order base weekly stories around gaming whether it’s from a behavioral or technical perspective. You probably know someone who works for a videogame company or writes about gaming for business or pleasure. And with systems like the Wii and Kinect, games are the new family-fun activity.

There are, of course, the lifelong gamers who can kick your ass at any game and own every console and every collection of games, but there’s a whole era of new, casual gamers emerging, as well. These are the people who have heard of Halo, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft, and throw their hands up in indifference. I only played World of Warcraft for about a year or so before I started to give tower-defense games and others like Team Fortress a try. I was willing to try because I had someone to play them with and, clearly, because Pixeljunk: Monsters is just too cute to pass up.

What is it that gets people who never showed any interest in gaming to all of a sudden decide to give one a try? The most obvious answer is being social at a party and taking part in a game of Halo, Wii Sports, Mario Kart, Street Fighter, Rock Band or similar titles. Even the social aspect of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft can be what initially sparks an interest in dipping a toe into the videogame pool. I think a big misconception that non-gamers have had and still have today is that gamers play alone in their bedrooms, shutting out the entire world. This is by no means the standard or norm and shouldn’t be the stereotype of video games or gamers.

The recent craze of motion-control gaming with products like Kinect, Move, and of course, the Wii, seem like the next big thing, but only because the technology is progressing. I have no desire to play golf as a cartoon character in my living room or attempt to workout in front of my TV. I can’t speak for everyone, but it all seems a little cheesy. Those systems remind me of toys at Christmas; the “innovative gameplay” gets hyped and you’re excited to open your present, but by December 31st you’re already back to motion-less controllers or no games at all.

I have touched on this in other articles, but I believe that customization, whether it be for the character in the game or even for the console itself, can really help to draw in non-gamers, especially women. If I were gifted an Xbox, two controllers and a game at Christmas having never played any video games in the past, I would rather they be hot pink, bejeweled or something other than the plain white or black. I want a game like Borderlands or Dragon Age: Origins, where I can play as a chick and customize colors and hairstyles.

Since I know that I don’t have the amazing, bad-ass, headshot skills of a pro-gamer, it’s intimidating to try a new game, fearing I will make a fool of myself or quit out of frustration. World of Warcraft was my first game, and it drew me in with its gradual learning curve and its welcoming RPG schematic. Granted, I might not catch on as fast as the token “gamer,” and I might take longer to level up, but I didn’t have to know a combination of buttons, platform like a pro, or know how to shoot a sniper rifle right off the bat. Similarly, tower-defense games helped me ease into strategy play. I could focus on what I knew — building a giant cannon defense grid — and watch the other, more experienced player put a slow tower here and a laser tower there due to the positioning of the track and direction the enemy was moving.

These types of games may not be for everyone, but I found them to be extremely helpful for me — someone who didn’t know how to turn on an Xbox or use the PC mouse for anything other than surfing the web. Casual gamers today are a new breed. We enjoy games when they cater to us, when they actively bridge the intimidation, skill, or financial gap that has separated gaming from wider acceptance for so long. The newb, it seems, is the future of gaming.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wonderking - Review

Little carrot men, high-pitched voices, and giggling are things you'd probably find in a baby-sitting center, but this is the exactly what sums up the cutesy free-to-play MMORPG 'Wonderking' Often called a "Maplestory clone," "Wonderking" has many noticeable similarities to its mammoth predecessor. The world is smaller than "Maplestory's," but the graphics are sharper and visually stimulating. There are even forum battles over which of NDoors' 2D side-scrolling games is "better," and which will ultimately be more successful. Considering that "Wonderking" is still in Closed Beta, comparing the two is rather unfair at this point. "Wonderking's" story is very spiritual and resembles much of the Christian bible. I can't help but notice the likeness between the two. I guess one could say that the story is somewhat unoriginal, but at the same time, it's quite refreshing to see a story that isn't about fairies, tree-people, monsters and castles. Even though the story is a nice change of pace, "Wonderking's" classes are pretty cliche and expected: Mage, Swordsman, Scout and Thief. Moving forward, you're able to branch out to four specializations within each base class. The archetype I played most was a scout, and I became bored within a few minutes. 

All you have to do is press the Control key to shoot, so I just kept mashing the button to grind through quests. As you can imagine, this got old very quickly. The creatures I was endlessly killing were extremely cute, and even had tears coming out of their eyes when they died. That seemed a little messed up to me, and made grinding more painful than it already is... One thing I will make note of is that since this is an early build of the game, there are plenty of technical issues. While logging in, I felt the need to cross my fingers and hope that I wouldn't encounter any errors. I've encountered about four or five different ones in the past week or two alone. There are those who can run the game from the get-go and never have issues, but if you do, keep in mind that they're constantly fixing technical aspects; you can troubleshoot on the forums, but if the game won't work on your system, submit a ticket with the specs, and just hope it gets fixed in the next patch. Even in a closed beta stage, "Wonderking" is definitely impressive -- but it needs some work in order to match up to "Maplestory." But do we really want "Wonderking" to be compared to "Maplestory" in the first place? Some originality and innovation could probably do the game some good.

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Neo Steam - Review

Gears, clocks, top hats, monocles, goggles, steam-powered machines -- all are part of a trendy culture called "Steampunk" that is making an appearance in areas of creativity including, of course, video games. Riding on this trend is the free-to-play MMORPG "Neo Steam." With a world that is completely powered with in-game Neo Steam -- including a Steam Balloon, Submarine and a Zeppelin -- you can expect an environment that all steampunk enthusiasts can appreciate.

Two factions are available for you to choose from when you start out: the Republic of Rogwel and the Kingdom of Elerd. The Republic of Rogwel focuses on the old Neo Steam world, specializing in science and engineering, while the Kingdom of Elerd has turned to magic as an alternative source of energy and a new way of life. I like that the opposing factions are not the "Alliance," "Rebels," "Empire," or some other typical titles.

Unfortunately, the character customization is somewhat limited. You can choose from six races: Human, Elves, Pom, Lupine, Lyell and Taxn. The humans and elves are just like you would expect them to be; however the Poms are incredibly cute, furry creatures that put puppies to shame. The Lyell resemble humans, but have teddy bear-like ears. Taxn's are considered the attractive race with the appearance of humans, but more slender and elvish-looks. If you prefer playing more beast-like characters, the Lupine are wolves. Besides choosing your race, there are only four classes to choose from: Machinist, Mystic, Warrior and Scout. You can probably guess what each class is like based on their titles. Once you reach level 10, you can choose what you'd like to specialize in within your class.

PvP in "Neo Steam" is enjoyable for those who love player vs. player combat, and those who typically hate it due to being ganked will like it as well. The PvP zones, battlefields and arenas are level-limited (like "Warhammer Online"), so all of you newer players don't have to worry about getting ganked every 20 minutes. I am not a big PvP player, but after doing some research and reading the chat in-game, PvP seems to be a crowning jewel of "Neo Steam."

The 3D anime graphics are relatively decent, but not for critical, fussy, and visually-focused gamers. There were some bugs that I encountered such as getting stuck right in the middle of a stairway, quests not enabling me to loot the quest items and giving me credit for killing a boss when in fact, the boss had killed me and still had a good 30% of health left.

One of the most annoying things I faced was, believe it or not, the status bar. The status bar for opening and collecting items takes a long enough time that it becomes very frustrating when 10 or more things are required for one quest. I found myself quickly becoming impatient and surfing the Internet while my character opened up items, taking me out of the experience.

Thankfully the music is excellent and engrossing, with electronic beats and dramatic scores. It definitely helped get me through the obstacles that I faced. I even left the character creation screen open while I was writing this review because it makes for great background music.

If there's a feature you're used to in MMORPGs, chances are "Neo Steam" has it in some fashion. There are pets, crafting and specialty skills to acquire, level up and customize. Also expected is that the Item Shop makes getting things a bit quicker. If you find yourself wanting an EXP bonus, a money drop rate increase, a training point bonus, potions, vanity items and special mounts, you can always visit the Item Shop or purchase a premium package, charging you either $5.99, $9.99 or $14.99 for 30 day's use.

You can go through the entire game without spending a dime, though, so don't be worried. The Item Shop is more intended for those who hate grinding and would rather fork out some cash to get fancy items than spend the time in-game. Looks like lazy players and character customization fanatics like myself will have to start budgeting the premium package into our monthly allowances...

Great for beginning MMO players, "Neo Steam" is simple to start out, but is surprisingly deep and challenging. The steampunk theme sets it apart from other anime MMOs, and for fans of the genre "Neo Steam" is definitely the best free-to-play MMORPG available.

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Appealing to a New Type of "Gamer Girl"

You’ve probably heard the term "gamer girl," meaning a girl who's immersed in the videogame world on a regular basis.  I wouldn't call myself by this name, despite owning two level-80 characters in World of Warcraft, in addition to a half-a-dozen neglected alts.  I’ve watched my boyfriend play through games such as Uncharted, BioShock, and Heavy Rain, and played titles like League of Legends, Defense Grid, and Team Fortress, but only do so for a short while before they begin to bore or frustrate me.  Still, despite my own personal investment in the medium, or lack thereof, people outside the close-knit gaming community often still label me as a "gamer girl."

Most have a childhood full of old games.  Before I met my videogame-infatuated (in the best possible sense) boyfriend, Kyle, my only knowledge of the medium came from the Sonic and Mario days of my youth.  I had heard of Halo, and picked up the controller at one point (to appease social norms), but that didn't go anywhere.  Once I started dating Kyle, he introduced me to World of Warcraft and various puzzle games on the Xbox.  He never was and still isn’t a World of Warcraft "addict," but he thought it would be a great game for me to try since I was almost entirely new to the whole gaming industry.

Even though I have played World of Warcraft for years, and have tried many genres of games, I can't dive into many of the big-budget titles.  I've been trying to figure out why, and even recently canceled my monthly WoW subscription to give other games a chance.  Besides, the game became extremely boring once I reached level 80 with my second character.  Since I wasn't about to spend all of my free time grinding for better gear that would be outdated with each patch and since my player-versus-player skills are slim to none, I lost all desire to keep playing.  I'd be more interested in first-person shooters if I had years of gaming experience and didn't become frustrated with spending more gametime dead than alive.

I believe there are many women like me who know about videogames and dabble in one or two that hold our interest, but would not consider ourselves to be "gamer girls" whatsoever.  Many titles aren't made with women in mind.  Granted, the main market right now is men, aged 25 to 40, but a whole market of women needs to be tapped.  That's a lot of money to be made.   

Imagine you're at the checkout of a major department store, buying up a 4-pack of energy drinks and some pizzas for a weekend of playing the latest big-name videogame such as Call of Duty or Halo with a few of your friends.  Glancing over at the magazine rack, you come across the latest issue of Cosmopolitan and can’t help but notice the headline "Girls Night In With Mass Effect 2" written in big, bright, yellow letters next to Jessica Alba’s flowing locks of hair.   

This may surprise you, but should it?  What woman can resist a classic love story, whether it's in the form of a romantic comedy, a soap opera, or a trashy novel?  The Twilight series is a huge hit because women identify with the main character and the love interest is dangerous and romantic.  Couldn't the same be said for videogames? Storylines in this growing medium can be more real and exciting than passively watching a movie.

Some RPGs currently let you select your answers to in-game questions, allowing you to take the story where you want it to go, to some degree.  This is an improvement in customizing the storyline to allow players to feel and become more engaged and connected to the main character.  Having the choice of playing as a female character in most games would be a huge step.  It's hard to be drawn into the lives of these digital creations when you're forced to play as a buzzcut, square-jawed, ab-crunching manly man with a hint of facial scruff as you interact with women who show faint hints of emotion, have overly exaggerated proportions that would make Barbie jealous, and, of course, just happen to be secretly madly in love with the main character.  The romantic relationships between characters in games lacks something.  When I've watched them kiss and have intimate conversational scenes, I don't believe anything. The connection seems forced.  It's probably because the female character often acts like a man herself, and usually doesn't have much of a history with the lead male character.  If the romance storyline is that the man and woman meet for the first time at the beginning of the game, they both go on this adventure killing everything and don't show them engaged in much conversation or interaction other than killing the enemy, the part where they all of a sudden fall for each other just seems a little far-fetched.  Sure it's possible, but more likely to attract the male game players than females, as women are generally more complicated when getting into a relationship.  

I'm not hating on game companies who portray female characters in games as long-legged, super-boobed, trained assassins because let's face it, a lot of guys like this and it sells.  I just think it would be great if game companies would start appealing to the adult women market that has barely been reached.  Games that centered around fashion, interior design, and Hello Kitty will attract some women, but will mostly interest young girls.  There have to be some stories, characters, settings, etc. that can appeal to women above the age of 16 that don't involve cookie-cutter space marines and 300 types of guns.  Rather than having as many weapons and vehicles to use, give me a femalebadass main character with lots of outfits, hairstyles, and hair color options.  If with each level, I could change these things up to match the environment and mood of the level, I would get excited each time the loading screen would come up.  If a step could be taken even further, allowing me to change the colors and accessories on each of my outfits, paired with an adventurous storyline and a sexy side-kick with some brains and not just a body, I would surely become addicted.

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